In remembrance of a forgotten man

Posted: April 30, 2011 in Formula 1
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Everyone has at least one “I remember where I was when…” moment.  Something you could describe in minute detail without fear of contradiction, an event frozen in time.  You might recall your exact location when news broke of John Lennon’s death or what you were doing when BBC News first reported Princess Diana’s passing.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to keep your wits about you for so long, you might even know how you celebrated Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal against West Germany, though you’ve probably got more chance of recalling your reaction when Gazza burst into tears.

Tomorrow, Sunday 1st May, marks exactly 17 years since the last fatal accident in a Formula 1 car.  On lap 7 of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the Williams of Ayrton Senna veered to the right in the middle of the long, flat-out left curve at Tamburello.  An impact with a concrete wall on the track perimeter sent suspension components into the cockpit, where Senna sustained head injuries that left no hope of survival.

Every aspect of that day remains crystal clear in the memory.  I can tell you all about the crash, what I did for the rest of that day and how, when Moira Stewart announced Senna’s death on the evening news, my Dad felt the need to reinforce the message.  I didn’t believe it immediately, being 8 years old and still holding on to the idea that maybe it was all some terrible mistake.  Murray Walker’s remarkable Keep Calm and Carry On commentary from that afternoon has stayed with me too.  Watching a live feed from the Italian host broadcaster RAI, Murray could see and appreciate the gravity of the situation, cameras remaining fixed on the medical team and their increasingly desperate efforts to save a situation which was already beyond hope.  BBC had taken their own cameras to that race, which saved British viewers from witnessing Senna’s ultimate end and gave Murray the task of publicly hoping for the best while privately staring at the worst.

What I couldn’t tell you is what I was doing the day before.  I’d probably been to see my grandparents, as I did religiously on Saturday afternoons as a child.  Unthinkable though it may be in these days of live text updates in winter testing and multiple red button viewing options during a race, qualifying wasn’t live on free-to-air television in 1994.  Going from hazy memory, I think there may have been a brief telephoned report from Murray covering that afternoon’s events, through which we were made aware of the accident that claimed Roland Ratzenberger’s life.

Just like Senna, Ratzenberger was the victim of a mechanical failure.  Telemetry traces showing the steering of his Simtek car suggest that Roland had left the road on his previous lap, wagging the car from side to side as he rejoined the track to make sure everything felt fine.  The Simtek carried on, negotiating Tamburello at full speed and heading towards the even faster right-hand kind of Villeneuve.  When the Austrian turned right, his car failed to respond.  A suspected front wing failure carried him across the grass at barely reduced pace, striking a wall at a higher speed and more acute angle than Senna would the following day.

Ratzenberger was killed instantly.  Had the wing failed a little earlier, towards the exit of Tamburello, he might have had time to slow the car down and give himself a chance.  A little later and he’d have been well into the braking zone for the Tosa hairpin, with ample room to slow down without hitting anything at all.  Formula 1 is a sport of fine margins at all times, but rarely do those margins produce such cruel results.

Unlike Senna, who’d already started 161 Grands Prix, 65 of those from pole position and 41 of them ending in victory, Roland Ratzenberger’s life in Formula 1 was just beginning.  He’d made it there the hard way, losing momentum after a promising early career.  A late starter who knocked 2 years from his age to make himself more appealing to team owners, he became a champion in Formula Ford racing across central Europe.  Roland then came to England for the Formula Ford Festival races at Brands Hatch, losing out to Johnny Herbert in 1985 but coming back to claim top honours the following year.  In those days, only real hot-shoes won the Festival, at a time when top teams from across the continent made an annual pilgrimage to Kent.  The time was right for a move into British Formula 3, another breeding ground for future stars, but with the crack West Surrey Racing outfit, Ratzenberger could finish no higher than 12th in the 1987 championship.

The result was repeated in 1988 with the Madgwick team.  Subsequent drives in touring cars, British Formula 3000 and the Le Mans 24 Hours kept the wolves from the door but did nothing for his F1 aspirations.  For that, Roland followed the well-trodden path to Japan, the last-chance saloon for any single-seater driver whose European career was at a dead end.  Those who had the dedication to uproot themselves and the talent to succeed in the hugely competitive domestic F3000 series came back onto the F1 radar.  For Ratzenberger, it took 2 years of solid performances in sportscar racing to make it even that far.

History is littered with drivers whose undoubted talents were let down by a lack of desire.  It’s not enough to be fast in motor racing.  Without dedication to your craft, speed is nothing.  You’d have travelled a long way to find a man more dedicated to being a racing driver than Roland, who’d covered the globe in pursuit of a dream that was just beginning to come true.  Having been too slow to qualify for 1994’s opening race in Brazil, he shared the final row of the grid for the Pacific Grand Prix with his team mate David Brabham.  Simtek, in their first and only full season of racing, were never going to be major players but Ratzenberger would see the chequered flag in 11th.  If there’s any kind of comfort to be taken from his story, it’s that he had at least a little time to savour the realisation of a life’s ambition before Imola.

It was both inevitable and understandable that Senna, one of the most gifted talents to ever drive a racing car, should receive more attention in death than an Austrian rookie.  This weekend, while considering the legacy left by that remarkable Brazilian, don’t forget that Roland was taken at the same time, without ever having had the opportunity to establish his own.

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